Author: William Jamaal Fort
“Only you can take inner freedom away from yourself, or give it to yourself. Nobody else can.” - Michael A. Singer
Throughout our lifetimes, our educational experiences offer each of us a continual bounty of useful information that informs, not only our professional lives, but our private lives as well. Although we retain most of the information that is essential for our careers, much of that information gets lost with the passage of time. Untethered from the experience of our daily lives, it slowly descends into the deepest recesses of our subconscious. Other nuggets of wisdom remain shimmering like brilliant diamonds in our memory. The brightest diamond in my personal collection was the work of Abraham Harold Maslow. A professor at Alliant International University, Columbia University, Brandeis University, Brooklyn College and the New School for Social Research, Maslow was famed and widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of what became known as positive psychology. Positive psychology focuses on the aspects of human psychology that make life worth living, as opposed to viewing man as a composite of negative symptoms. One of Maslow’s most important contributions to this field was his famous hierarchical chart which illustrates man’s essential needs for living successfully.
In Maslow’s chart was brilliantly condensed for me those foundational needs (Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, & Esteem needs) that must be met by every human being, before achieving what became my personal Holy Grail: Self-Actualization. As illustrated by Maslow, self-actualized individuals were self-directed, independent, creative, spontaneous and most importantly, free – or at least as free as one can be in contemporary society. In organismic theorist, Kurt Goldstein’s view, self-actualization is the organism’s (man’s) master motive, and the only real motive. The tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is considered the organism’s basic drive.
For me, the top of Maslow’s chart shone like the sun, and instantly, my 21-year-old self adopted a path towards this worthy goal of self-actualization. Butcher, baker, beggar, thief, doctor, lawyer, artist or sage – from my new perspective, it did not matter much. In my opinion at the time, all professions were mere vehicles, means to an end, and easily cast aside the moment they failed to serve the pursuit of self-knowledge. Self-actualization, that was the real task. Navigating through the next few decades of ecstatic highs, death-defying lows and everything in-between in the pursuit of my goal, I came to realize that although the path to Self-Actualization did incorporate aspects of altruism, humanitarianism and empathy, it was still somewhat limited and material.
Interestingly enough, this occurred to me just a bit before that stage of life where most of us get our very first inkling that we are closer to the end than to the beginning. I was aware that Maslow had tinkered with his original concept over the years, but before this moment, I had no real motivation to discover the results of that work. I had been perfectly content with the model that I had been presented. As I began to re-examine Maslow’s work, I quickly discovered that prior to his untimely death from heart disease at the age of 62, he had recreated his famous hierarchy of needs model. Self-actualization had now taken a back seat to a concept that burst open the box…that concept was Self-Transcendence. During the process of his personal journey, Maslow had exceeded his original, more humanistic concept, and replaced it with one that mostly concerned itself with spiritual awakening, liberation from egocentricity, peak experiences and plateau living. I immediately committed myself to the exploration of this phenomenally limitless world of infinite potential and possibility. It was obvious on the surface that even if this radical approach to living could not guarantee everlasting happiness, it could at least reduce the negative impact of the gross materialism that permeates our culture. Although there are innumerable causes for society’s ills, I believed that a fundamental lack of connection was a significant contributor to the anxiety, depression and addiction that are so prevalent in the modern world. Psychologist Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” expressed it best.
“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self's actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”
Finding one’s true self through his process would be a welcomed antidote for the anxiety and depression suffered by so many. The relentless pace of living in today’s society creates a blind spot that prevents most people from exploring concepts like transcendence or other methods of living that exist “outside of the box”. For young people, the dizzying array of social media and technology is an effective smokescreen to this reality, but for many of those in later life, this missed opportunity for a more abundant and purposeful life becomes more apparent.
In my work in human performance, I have worked with many clients, both men and women, who have abruptly collided with the "what now" chapter of later life and found it more than a little challenging. With the children gone and careers winding down, these baby boomers face a far different reality than had previous generations. As the churning waters of their earlier incarnations begin to still, these boomers see with crystal clarity the challenges set before them. Unlike their parents, most senior and near-senior adults do not envision themselves leading sedentary lives as they wait for the inevitable. Whether they are financially secure or not (many of them are not), they are more focused on maintaining healthy lifestyles and constructing a roadmap towards higher purpose. For many of these individuals, the social and professional conditioning of the past can make this transition a difficult one, but with an in- depth exploration into the cultural and social opportunities available today, the search for meaning can become an incredible adventure.
In an effort to expound upon the importance of meaning in our 21st -century lives, Daniel Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” went as far as to say "Meaning is the new money". As far as baby-boomers are concerned, it is not mere meaning that they seek, but the transition and transmutation of meaning from the pedestrian model of children, home and work to a transcendent model that rises high above it all. To accomplish Maslow’s Self-Transcendence, these brave souls would be well-advised to adopt some new habits and acquire some new skills and understandings. Next Avenue Blog retirement expert writer, Ed Merck, offers some worthy suggestions on how to develop some of these skills. A centerpiece of Merck’s philosophy is "Strengthening your Inner Landscape". Merck explains:
"Learning to live your purpose is essentially a spiritual exercise, and thus an ‘inside’ job. For many of us, our work years required conforming to external guideposts and demands. Now we have the opportunity to develop new skills that are typically more reflective, such as attentive listening and trusting in the rightness of it all.”
Integrating the concepts of innovation and creativity as they apply to personal development is another key component according to Merck. The act of creating is the unfolding of who we are in the world, and thus a kissing cousin to living out our deeper purpose. It can take the form of art, music, writing, cooking, conversation, making love or even just sitting quietly. These are all satisfactory methods for renewal through this transition, but beyond the borders of what Merck suggests, Maslow’s "transcenders" (a term coined by Maslow himself) are more likely to dive into the uncertainty of the transition with more abandon. Transcenders are cut from a slightly different cloth. Maslow explains, "My strong impression is that transcenders show more strongly a positive correlation—rather than the more usual inverse one—between increasing knowledge and increasing mystery and awe…. For peak-experiencers and transcenders in particular, as well as for self-actualizers in general, mystery is attractive and challenging rather than frightening. ... I affirm ... that at the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively, rather than negatively, correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence, and a sense of oblation [surrender to the Divine].”
He continues, "The transcenders are far more apt to be innovators, discoverers of the new, than are the healthy self-actualizers… Transcendent experiences and illuminations bring clearer vision of the B-Values (Wholeness, Justice, Completion, etc.), of the ideal, ...of what ought to be, what actually could be, … and therefore of what might be brought to pass. For someone who has not lived on this trajectory towards Self-Transcendence for their adult life, a radical transformation seems in order. In the words of Charles Darwin, it’s not the strongest of a species who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change.” This adaptability is the secret to a successful transition. A whole range of adaptations related to health, diet, emotional and physical resilience must be considered to support the change.
Currently, mindfulness training and yoga top the list of effective means of integrating the mindbody system. Plant-based diets are also in vogue and reportedly producing astounding results related to general health and healing. These types of practices can build a foundation capable of sustaining any individual throughout the process of profound inner work. Whatever methods and tools are used in this process, it is apparent that we must create a new transitional model infused with self-compassion, empathy for others and a quality of service that allows us to transcend the mundane. It is quite possible that Maslow’s theories put into practice could impress upon 21st -century seniors that their greatest contributions to society may lie ahead.
In a recent interview, physicist Neil De Grasse Tyson referenced a quote from educational reformer Horace Mann to express his own passion for this approach to life, "Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for mankind." At this stage of my life, I wholeheartedly agree with both Mr. Tyson and Mr Mann, but my personal favorite fuel for thought are the words of poet Dylan Thomas when he said, "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at the close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
William Jamaal Fort is the CEO/CIO of Flowlab, Inc., a Los Angeles based human performance and virtual reality development company. www.flowlab1.com.